BEIJING- China on Thursday traded charges with the new U.S. administration of President George W. Bush, accusing his aides of interfering in its domestic affairs over the Falun Gong sect.
''China demands the U.S. government to respect the stand of the Chinese government on the Falun Gong issue and stop interfering in China's internal affairs on the excuse of Falun Gong, so as to avoid harming Sino-U.S. relations,'' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said.
Zhu took issue with a statement from U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made an explicit criticism of China's alleged suppression of the banned Falun Gong sect during a meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Li Zhaoxing.
Li was paying a farewell call on Powell before leaving his post in Washington.
Powell reportedly urged China to show tolerance and respect for the rule of law in dealing with Falun Gong, which China calls an ''evil sect.''
''Any government with a sense of responsibility will not adopt a laissez-faire policy on such an evil cult,'' Zhu said.
On Jan. 1, Chinese police detained more than 100 Falun Gong followers after they held a New Year's Day protest in the Tiananmen Square.
In protest against the suppression, five members of the movement set themselves afire on the square Tuesday, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported the same day, adding one of them died.
Boucher urged the Chinese government to release all Falun Gong followers ''detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their internationally recognized rights to freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of conscience.''
The U.S. renews its ''condemnation of China's crackdown on Falun Gong,'' Boucher said.
A light dusting of snow in Tiananmen Square yesterday covered the scene of a brief tragedy, although the presence of fire extinguishers near police vans was a grim reminder.
Hours earlier, on the eve of Chinese New Year, normally the most joyous festival in the Chinese calendar, four women and a man had doused themselves with petrol in the square and set themselves alight.
The Government was unusually quick to identify those involved as members of Falun Gong, the outlawed spiritualist movement that has dogged the authorities for two years.
Beijing derides Falun Gong as an "evil cult", but has been unable to curb its protests. Several followers were earlier detained in unrelated protests in Tiananmen, where such episodes have become a daily event.
But far from claiming responsibility for this latest protest, Falun Gong yesterday denied those involved were followers.
Witnesses said the women staggered, their arms raised, around one section of the vast plaza, while the man remained seated, engulfed by fire, for some minutes before police extinguished the flames.
Video footage shows smoke rising from one edge of the square as onlookers stare aghast. The victims were spirited away to an emergency medical centre. One woman later died, according to the official Xinhua news agency, which said the five were from central Henan province.
Police detained a sixth person said to be carrying flasks of petrol after the self-immolation. A CNN television crew who witnessed the incident were detained by police and their videotape was seized.
Falun Gong members in China risk imprisonment, even death, in their campaign to be allowed to practise their beliefs, which combine elements of Buddhism, Taoism, "qi gong" deep breathing exercises and meditation.
For the past two years they have used national holiday celebrations to highlight their beliefs and embarrass the Government with highly visible protests.
"This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing," the group said in a statement issued in New York.
"Mr Li Hongzhi, the founder of the practice, has explicitly stated that suicide is a sin."
The denial was echoed yesterday by Falun Gong representatives in Hong Kong and Australia.
"As far as I'm concerned, no real Falun Gong practitioner would do that," Ms Holly Wei, a Sydney-based spokeswoman for the organisation, said.
Another Australian spokesman, Mr Michael Pearson-Smith, said that a police claim that the victims were "walking with arms raised in a typical Falun Gong position" was wrong. Such a gesture was not part of Falun Gong practice.
Falun Gong says the incident in Tiananmen Square is part of a campaign by Beijing to discredit the movement. Every arm of the Government had "fabricated countless lies against Falun Gong throughout this crackdown".
It suggested that other groups and citizens "disenfranchised by injustice and corruption" could have staged the self-immolation.
Certainly, there is a tradition of using Tiananmen Square as a place of protest by disaffected individuals and larger groups. Last year, a farmer from an outlying province blew himself up in the square after his protests were ignored by authorities.
Yesterday, hundreds of soldiers and uniformed and plain-clothes police were trying to make sure there were no further protests.
Beijing is desperate to secure the 2008 Olympic Games and next month the International Olympic Committee assessment team arrives, deeply conscious of China's human rights record.
But on another front, the suicide attempt - profoundly contrary to Confucian beliefs and Chinese social mores - presents the Government with an opportunity to further denigrate Falun Gong and its followers as extremists and a threat to social order.
SANTEE -- Local Falun Gong activists celebrated yesterday's start of the Lunar New Year at an unlikely venue.
Several showed up at the Santee City Council chambers last night to thank Mayor Randy Voepel for defying the Chinese government and issuing a proclamation supporting their practices.
"Issuing a proclamation, on the surface, is a very simple act. It's so simplexwe take it for granted,'' said Arleen Freeman, 58, a Falun Gong practitioner who works as a real estate agent in San Diego.
"But at the heart of this simple act is something very powerful and very beautiful, a guarantee of individual freedom, a guarantee we can cherish because in Falun Gong in China, we've had a vivid example of what happens when that guarantee is absent."
Kevin Irwin, 31, a vocational nurse from Chula Vista, also told the mayor how much the proclamation meant. He said it "demonstrates your commitment to basic human rights and liberty, something to be applauded. It has sent a great example to the mayors around the world what a good mayor should do in upholding truth and justice."
Since China banned Falun Gong in July 1999, the two sides have waged a propaganda war in China and abroad.
Last year, California activists began asking cities to issue proclamations supporting the spiritual movement. The Chinese Consulate sent letters to Southern California cities asking officials to avoid any type of recognition.
Voepel may have been the first mayor to issue a supportive proclamation.
Chinese officials say Falun Gong is a dangerous cult, responsible for more than 1,500 deaths in China. Practitioners dispute the charge, saying they follow centralized teachings about spiritual and physical enhancement.
They say the Chinese government has tortured to death 120 Falun Gong practitioners.
On Tuesday, a Chinese government news agency reported that five practitioners set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. One woman died. Falun Gong followers said the government staged the event.
Practitioners "have a consistently long record of peaceful appeals," said Wen-yi Wang, a Chinese doctor living in Mira Mesa who teaches Falun Gong classes.
"If injustice is somewhere and nobody says anything, it will spread everywhere. Very soon people's consciousness becomes numb," Wang said.
She also said she feels U.S. public opinion carries weight, even at the local level.
"There is a unique value of the United States in the world," she said. "People here have the courage to stand for justice and freedom."
The Falun Gong sect distanced itself yesterday from five Chinese who set themselves on fire in a mass suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square.
Beijing police moved to block any further large-scale protests on the square, as rumours spread of demonstrations yesterday to mark New Year's Day in the Chinese lunar calendar, the main festival of the year in China.
A handful of Falun Gong followers who attempted to unfurl banners were quickly grabbed, beaten, and taken away, a sight which has become routine in the Chinese capital.
Sect members posted messages on the Falun Gong's North American website accusing Chinese authorities of staging the attempted suicide incident for the international media.
A press statement released in New York said: "This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananmen Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners, because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit anyone from killing."
Beijing is preparing to welcome Olympic delegates next month to judge the city's bid for the 2008 games. Despite its bloody past, the square has been suggested by Chinese officials as a venue for Olympic beach volleyball.
BEIJING - Chinese authorities threw an extraordinary security ring around Tiananmen Square on Wednesday to prevent more protests by the outlawed Falun Gong religious group.
One day after five members of the banned group set themselves on fire in the middle of the square, authorities employed identification checks and interviews to block anyone suspected of supporting Falun Gong from entering China's most famous plaza.
It was the first time in its political battle of wills against Falun Gong that authorities strictly controlled access to one of China's most important tourist sites and the symbolic heart of its communist government.
Still, during the day, which was China's New Year's holiday, several members of the sect managed to sneak through the security cordon into the middle of the square where they startled tourists by unfurling Falun Gong banners or shouting support for the cult.
Winning the bizarre cat-and-mouse game at least three times Wednesday, lone Falun Gong supporters stepped out of the crowd to shout "Falun Gong is good!" or attempt to wave a banner.
Each time, undercover agents promptly dragged the protester to a nearby police van. One protester who unfurled a banner was smacked on the head while being led away.
Tuesday's self-immolations, in which one woman died, represented the most extreme action taken by Falun Gong members in their increasingly bitter confrontation with authorities.
Since China's government banned the group in 1999, Falun Gong members have regularly gone to Tiananmen Square to protest.
In what has become a choreographed ritual, on some days scores or hundreds of devotees will suddenly launch a protest. Plainclothes agents immediately swoop in.
Until Tuesday's fires, the Falun Gong protests had been peaceful. Some cult members outside China have questioned whether the five cultists who set themselves afire could be true members of the group because its teachings prohibit suicide.
"You cannot kill or take a life. It really is a sin, and when you study Falun Gong, you are not a practitioner if you do this," group spokeswoman Gail Rachlin told The Associated Press.
Falun Gong's founder, an exiled Chinese man, Li Hongzhi, issued a cryptically worded statement Wednesday suggesting that the cult needs to change tactics and go "beyond the limits of forbearance" in its protestations.
"If the evil has already reached the point where it is unsavable and unkeepable, then various measures at different levels can be used to eradicate it," the message said.
China has ruthlessly cracked down on the group because it says that Falun Gong--a mixture of Buddhist religious beliefs, traditional exercises and other teachings--is dangerous to the health and safety of its followers.
China scholars say Falun Gong has greatly unnerved the government because it has created a loose-knit organization of devotees capable of organizing powerful protests against the Communist Party regime.
Li Xiaobo, a China scholar at Barnard College in New York, called Falun Gong "the most challenging organized opposition" the communist government has ever faced.
The sense that China's government has become trapped by the group emerged Wednesday as China's state-run media chose not to give any coverage to the suicide attempt, even though it might have been a useful propaganda tool in its argument that Falun Gong is a danger to members.
The only report in China on the incident appeared on the English-language service of the New China news agency.
On Wednesday in Tiananmen Square, a strong security force was in place to control crowds and identify cult members before they could demonstrate.
At entrances to the square, Chinese tourists were required to line up to show identification and in some cases submit to searches.
To test whether some tourists were affiliated with the group, police conducted quick interviews, asking people their opinion of the group or to repeat the phrase "Falun Gong is an evil cult."
Inside the square, hundreds of plainclothes security agents milled about with the crowd of several thousand tourists, barely concealing their identities as they kept watch.
At several entrances, authorities kept stacks of fire extinguishers, suggesting they were prepared for another suicide attempt.
Police maintained a heavy presence at Tiananmen Square
China has sharply rejected condemnation by the new United States Government of its crackdown on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
China demands the US Government respect the stand of the Chinese Government on the Falun Gong issue and stop interfering
Foreign Ministry official Zhu Bangzao
A foreign ministry spokesman, Zhu Bangzao, said the US should stop using the excuse of Falun Gong to interfere in China's internal affairs, adding further criticism would harm bilateral ties.
His comments come as the police continue to maintain some of the tightest security for years in central Beijing, following a mass suicide attempt allegedly staged by Falun Gong members.
Mr Zhu was responding to comments on Wednesday by US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who had condemned the crackdown and called for all religious and political prisoners to be released.
Instead of being a religious group, it is actually an anti-human, anti-society and anti-science evil cult that keeps cheating and harming the people
It was the first official comment by George W Bush's administration on human rights in China.
Mr Zhu also said the cult was "anti-human, anti-society and anti-science".
"No government with a sense of responsibility will adopt a laissez-faire policy on such an evil cult," he said.
Beijing's Tiananmen Square was surrounded by lines of policemen on Thursday, the second day of the Chinese New Year holiday.
Police also checked bags by the square
Many locals were stopped from entering the square and were asked to show identity cards and frisked by police.
The incident on Tuesday, involving five alleged Falun Gong followers, left one woman dead and four people injured, the state news agency Xinhua said.
Falun Gong spokesmen abroad cast doubt on Beijing's version of the incident, saying suicide went against the spiritual movement's beliefs.
China outlawed the movement, which teaches meditation and exercise, in July 1999, after branding it an "evil cult".
Relationship to change
Changes are expected in US-China relations under the new administration of George W Bush, who accused Bill Clinton of taking too soft a line with China.
The two countries are expected to lock horns over US plans for a national missile defence system, intended to protect the country from incoming warheads.
Police placed fire extinguishers on the square after the self-immolation protest
There are also tensions over the US relationship with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
Washington has defence agreements with Taiwan and sells the island military equipment.
In his confirmation hearing, Mr Powell called China a potential regional rival, saying it was neither a strategic partner nor foe.
BEIJING - China sharply rejected on Thursday U.S. condemnation of its suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and said further criticism would harm bilateral ties.
"China demands the U.S. government to respect the stand of the Chinese government on the Falun Gong issue and stop interfering in China's internal affairs on the excuse of Falun Gong, so as to avoid harming Sino-U.S. relations," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao.
In a statement issued by the state-run Xinhua news agency in response to U.S. State Department condemnation of the 18-month-old crackdown on Falun Gong, Zhu repeated China's assertion that it was fighting a cult, not curbing religious freedom.
"Instead of being a religious group, it is actually an anti-human, anti-society and anti-science evil cult that keeps cheating and harming the people and has seriously endangered the society," Zhu said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, in the first official comment by the George Bush administration on human rights in China, condemned the crackdown and called on China to release all religious and political prisoners.
Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday warned China that the Bush administration will raise Beijing's poor record on human rights and do it "frankly."
In a half-hour meeting with departing Chinese Ambassador Li Zhaoxing, Mr. Powell "made clear that we would raise human rights issues and we would raise them frankly," department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
"Frank" is often used as a diplomatic euphemism for "forceful."
Mr. Powell told the Chinese ambassador that the United States believes that "China needed to follow the rule of law, that China needed to be . . . exposed to the powerful forces of free-enterprise systems and democracy," Mr. Boucher said.
The secretary's assertions followed a day after five devotees of the Falun Gong spiritual movement set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square to protest the Chinese government's crackdown on the group's religious activities. One protester died in the incident, timed for the eve of the celebrations of the Chinese New Year.
Chinese security forces ringed the huge square in central Beijing yesterday to prevent more demonstrations by the Falun Gong, banned by the government in July 1999 as an "evil cult" bent on overthrowing the Communist regime. Falun Gong followers practice meditation and deep-breathing exercises, which they say improve their health and sense of well-being.
Tuesday's protest was not mentioned in China's tightly controlled press.
Mr. Boucher said Mr. Powell urged China to practice "tolerance and the rule of law." The meeting, the first Mr. Powell has had with any foreign envoy, was scheduled because Mr. Li is returning home to take a senior post at the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
The meeting touched on a number of topics, including U.S. policy on Taiwan and the proposed U.S. missile-defense system, which President Bush supports and the Chinese have sharply criticized.
Mr. Powell repeated the past U.S. commitment to the three U.S.-China communiques concluded in 1972, 1978 and 1982. The communiques are not treaties and must be reaffirmed or rejected each time a new administration comes into office. They are the basis for U.S. policy toward China.
An administration defense official said committing the United States to the 1982 communique undercuts Pentagon efforts to review U.S. policy on arms sales to Taiwan. That agreement sets out U.S. intentions to reduce arms sales to Taiwan. In his successful presidential campaign, Mr. Bush promised to do more to help Taiwan defend itself against attack from the mainland.
Mr. Boucher said Mr. Powell and Mr. Li did not discuss the Falun Gong demonstration, but the secretary did express U.S. unhappiness with the official campaign in China against the Falun Gong.
"We call on China to release all those detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their internationally recognized rights to freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of conscience," Mr. Boucher said.
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy estimates that 20,000 Falun Gong adherents have been detained by the government and 59 have died in police custody.
Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi lives in exile in the United States and recently urged his followers to take a more aggressive defense against the official crackdown.
Separately, the European Union made public on Monday its own condemnation of Beijing's human rights record. EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels approved a statement saying they "remain much concerned at the lack of progress in a number of areas."
This includes concerns about "continuing widespread restrictions on freedom of assembly, expression and association, the violations of freedom of religion and belief, the situations of minorities, including in Tibet, and the frequent and extensive recourse to the death penalty," according to a statement issued by the Swedish government, the current president of the EU.
Beijing has denounced Western criticism on human rights and Tibet as an interference in its internal affairs. Critics of the Chinese government are pushing hard for a resolution critical of China's record at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva this spring.
Beijing has lately shown itself even more sensitive to outside criticism of its human rights record as it prepares a bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, regarded as a top priority by China's leaders.
Mr. Boucher said the timing of yesterday's meeting so early in Mr. Powell's tenure was dictated by the fact that Mr. Li had been called home to take a Foreign Ministry post. "The timing of this particular meeting was dictated by Ambassador Li's departure, rather than by any sort of strategic plan," he said.
WASHINGTON - As China pressed its crackdown on protests by the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Beijing's ambassador Wednesday that his government should be tolerant and respect the law.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher renewed U.S. condemnation of China's actions against the Falun Gong and asked Chinese authorities to release all members detained for peacefully demanding the right to freedom of religion.
Boucher spoke after Powell met with Ambassador Li Zhaoxing, the secretary of state's first meeting with a foreign envoy since taking office Saturday. The half-hour meeting was a farewell call by Li, who returns shortly to Beijing to a senior position in the Foreign Ministry.
During the meeting, Powell reaffirmed that the United States will be firm with China when differences arise, Boucher said.
Asked whether Powell told Li that imprisoned Falun Gong members should be released, Boucher said: ``The message that Secretary Powell delivered was one of tolerance and rule of law.''
The Falun Gong drew millions of followers in the 1990s with its ritual of slow-motion exercises combined with the sect's eclectic tenets that supporters say promote health and good citizenship. The government banned the sect in 1999, a strong crackdown followed, and in recent weeks the movement has stepped up its resistance.
On Tuesday, New Year's Eve by China's lunar calendar, five members set themselves afire on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the first confirmed use of self-immolation in the protest campaign. One of the five died.
Boucher said the United States is saddened by Tuesday's Tiananmen incident.
``The actions that led to such results are tragic for all of the people involved, most directly those who are injured and their families,'' Boucher said. ``We note the statements by Falun Gong spokesmen that Falun Gong teachings oppose violence and suicide.''
``And I would renew our condemnation of China's crackdown on Falun Gong,'' Boucher said. ``I would call on China to release all of those detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their internationally recognized rights to freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of conscience.''
During Powell's meeting with Li, Boucher said, the secretary reaffirmed many of the points on China policy that he outlined before a Senate hearing last week.
He noted Powell's comments that the United States does not see China as an inevitable foe, that the two countries can cooperate in some areas, but there will be differences in others.
``The secretary also made clear that we have a one-China policy, and that we will follow the communiques and our other obligations with regard to China, as well as our obligations to meet the defensive needs of Taiwan,'' Boucher said.
The communiques the United States and China have agreed to over the years provide the framework within which the two countries conduct relations.
Boucher said Powell and Li had a brief discussion of the Bush administration's desire to build a defensive system against incoming missiles. China and other countries strongly oppose the idea.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
FALUN GONG UPDATES
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